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A pair of big hits but whose was better? Good golly, it’s Whitney vs Dolly!

Now a sprightly 78 and with her recent Rockstar record featuring the likes of Debbie Harry, Paul McCartney and Sting, in this time of turmoil Dolly Parton represents all that’s great about America. In fact, even describing her as an all-round exemplary human would be a vast understatement.

Her pioneering Imagination Library literacy programme, genuine status as a LGBT icon and innumerous untold acts of philanthropy have made this First Lady of Tennessee an authentic force for good. 

Not only that, but she’s achieved all this while changing the face of country pop too. A musician, singer, songwriter and producer, she’s one of music’s all time legends with boundless energy, talent and, without wanting to sound too gushing, heart. And nothing sums that gracious spirit up better than the song celebrating its half century. It is, of course, the eternal majesty of I Will Always Love You, even if we have a problem, Houston.

In June 1974, Dolly Parton was at No.1 on the US country chart with I Will Always Love You, becoming one of the best selling singles of the year. Legend has it she wrote this song and Jolene on the same day. On. The. Same. Day.

That’s an impressive use of 24 hours by anyone’s standards.

I’ve always thought Jolene must have been some formidable female to make someone like Dolly feel so insecure. Either that or “my man” must have been a complete and utter moron.

I Will Always Love You is a standout classic, of course. Of all the songs she’s written in her illustrious career, it remains one of the most iconic. With just a piano and guitar accompaniment emphasising its delicacy, Parton achieved the rare feat of topping the charts twice with the same song when she re-recorded it for her 1982 movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

And of course, the tender ballad became popular all over again when prom queen Whitney Houston recorded a version for the soundtrack of her leaden 1992 movie The Bodyguard, and which would go on to become the biggest selling song of her curtailed career. Though the film was originally proposed for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross in 1976, but fell through when McQueen had a diva fit and refused to be billed second to the Motown singer.

Hearing Dolly’s original in that telly advert for Airbnb (you know, the one with the dog) reminded me how she absolutely knocks the over-sung pap that Whitney offered up right out of the park.

As with so much of Houston’s over-rated and over-played catalogue of songs written by someone else (that’ll be the lot then), her rendition has always felt more like an exercise in technical singing than a song.

Granted, I know I’m in the minority here but whenever has that stopped me expressing an opinion before?

Whitney’s cover happens to be the 26th best selling single in the UK ever, but when further up the rankings are the likes of Boney M., Robson & Jerome and Aqua’s Barbie Girl, you don’t need me to point out the discrepancy between artistry and popularity. 

In tenth and fifteenth place are two interminable ballads that stuck around for what seems like centuries: you remember, those Nineties film themes from mainstream marvels Wet Wet Wet and Bryan Adams. That pair of 45s are so interminably ubiquitous that I won’t even have to name them, thankfully. 

Joining them is the one with Houston’s histrionics, which if you were pop smart in late 1992 into early 1993 when it had its 10-week run at the top of the charts, seems quite lowly to have 25 singles outselling it, particularly when only nine have only stubbornly stayed longer at No.1, the Wets and little Bry included. 

I Will Always Love You did even better business in the US, staying on top of the Billboard 100 for 14 long, long weeks. It became the song most played at weddings and funerals, and the album generated by the film became the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time.

In other words, I Will Always Love You was at the time, utterly inescapable. Unfortunately for me. 

One day in ’93 the track was on the radio at work (no, it wasn’t a 9 to 5 — far from it) and — well, it was on the radio every bloody day but you know what I mean — so when the warbling histrionics of the last couple of minutes somehow seemed even more annoying than before, in a fit of poofy pique I shouted at the trusty transistor, “Oh, for god’s sake, shut up woman!!”.

Angela, my then boss at the catering department of Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, looked at me with her nose in the air and daggers in her eyes, spoiling for a fight. There was no love lost between her and I, put it that way.

“You don’t like Whitney Houston, Steven?”

As big boss woman was black and, alas, prone to chips being not only in serving trays but resting on various bodily locations not a million miles away from her head I decided to choose my words carefully. Not always an easy feat pour moi.

“Hmmm, well, I think we’ve heard this one just a little bit too much now, don’t you think?”

And with that I flounced off to the dining room before she could think of a retort.

Unfortunately, she was the type that had told her I didn’t rate Whitney Houston she would have wanted to believe I must be the sort who dislikes all black people, let’s put it that way. I believe they call that racism, an abhorrent prejudice that anyone who’s experienced discrimination (or not) can empathise with.

In fact, almost thirty years on, I was warned not long ago by another person of colour — thankfully he a gay writer called Quentin Harrison and unlike the ex boss of me, more friend than foe — that I would “need to think very carefully about writing an article dissing Whitney, especially in the current climate. She’s a role model for us, and she can’t defend herself.”

Well, that may be the case but in a way the dead are the perfect people to speak ill of because

  1. They can’t hear us.
  2. They can’t sue.

So here’s the article anyway.

Perhaps the problem is that not only did I hear I Will Always Love You too much, but I just heard Whitney Houston too much. Far far too much.

When I got home and relayed the exchange to my housemate Judi she looked slightly surprised.

“Oh come on, you can’t deny that Whitney Houston has got a good voice?”

“Yes but she bellows, like Streisand. But unlike her, Whitney just belts it out without appearing to show any sensitivity or understanding of the lyrics at all. She would sound the same if she was singing the phone book.” 

Whitney’s version glorifies her voice yet totally misses the heart of the song. Yes, she had the range, but whenever I hear her vocals it sounds like an ego singing. It’s power and vibrato over nuance and meaning. It’s all, ‘Look at me. I can sing louder, longer and sustain a note better than anyone else. Lyrics? Pah, they’re are just a vehicle for my incredible voice. It’s a gift from God.’

Whitney was a strange phenomenon really, because manufactured bubblegum acts aside, those big-lunged singing stars who barely wrote a note had almost died out by the time she arrived in the mid Eighties. She was essentially from that Barbra, Gladys, Dionne, Aretha middle of the road mould of yesteryear, yet unlike that holy quadrinity she often gave the impression she had about as much soul as Kylie or, dare I say it, her arch nemesis Madonna. 

To me, hearing her music is inextricable from seeing video for I Will Always Love You, with old shaky jaw quivering her way through the ‘big finish’, the foghorn denouement that proves the downfall of many a karaoke or television talent show performance.

And while I’m on the subject, we can also thank Whitney for inspiring a whole new wave of warbling wannabes: from X Factor to Mariah, Celine to Adele, she is to blame for every over-singing over-emoter desperate to hitch a ride on the bandwagon marked ‘You’re Lucky I’m Not Trying To Be Madonna’.

Whereas Dolly’s delivery of I Will Always Love You emanated a touching sweetness and sincerity, her raw, wistful vocals make Whitney’s generation seem artificial and exaggerated. Then again, I found Houston’s persona rather insincere, contrived and, as we’ve discovered since her demise, rather fraudulent.

The safe and schmaltzy nature of much of the material she was given to sing did little to dispel the notion that Houston was little more than a puppet for Clive Davis, her controlling label boss and mentor who would go to great lengths to make his protégé appear “less black.” Lest we forget, this was also the era when Michael Jackson’s skin colour lightened in tandem with an obsession over record sales. 

Beaming from ear to ear in almost every one of her anodyne record sleeves was Whitney’s unnerving almost demonic big grin, screaming, “Buy me, buy me! I’m nice!”

Maybe I’m biased, but growing up as a Bowie scholar where in a 50-plus career that involved songwriting and producing, he only ever authorised two record sleeves showing him smiling. 

You got the impression that when he was on the scene Davis authorised Whitney’s record sleeves, and just about everything else connected with her career as well.

Even a friend of mine who’s a Whitney fan (hi Eddie!) concedes that Davis “had her doing pop songs in between the ballads to keep the Eighties crowd happy, in case the public realised the ballads were kinda old fashioned.”

Many of those saccharine mediocre ballads were clearly supposed to be sung by a much older woman. Middle aged, Annie Lennox said; which is all the more ironic when you realise Annie had become exactly that when Whitney covered her obscurity Step By Step for the soundtrack of The Preacher’s Wife in 1995.

Where Do Broken Hearts go? I dunno, dear. Same place as your credibility?

For the record, I do rather like one of those frivolous ubiquitous pop songs, the buoyant big cheese slice of joy that is I Wanna Dance With Somebody*, the one with the cowbells and that thick pulsating and very of its time synth bass. 

“What is she singing, Steve? ‘I wanna build a heap with somebody’?”, waitress Kath asked me one day at the Bull Hotel in Stony Stratford. Even that wasn’t enough to kill off my unalloyed enjoyment of the record.

Having said that, I recall how she did actually put some people off with a lacklustre performance on Top Of The Pops. The next day all anyone talked about was those strange flashing light hand movements, which just drew attention to how a person who clearly couldn’t dance was singing a song with that particular title. Now that’s what I call irony.

It’s an indictment of the human race that a black person felt the need to subjugate herself in that way to succeed. But then history is littered with scores of celebrity bodies who made that Faustian pact with fame, and it’s no discerner of race.

Me? I even witnessed her perform live once, at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert at Wembley Stadium. Bizarrely, it only occurred to me as I wrote this very paragraph that it took place on 11 June 1988, ie 33 years ago today.

But even that performance was without controversy when many of us noticed many of the banners featuring political slogans and images of the then imprisoned South African leader that had adorned the stage since midday showtime were moved or obscured for her performance. It later emerged that it was a deliberate act by Whitney’s team because she “didn’t want to upset anybody” ie her paymasters in white middle America.

Oozing soul from every pore, her mom Cissy sings her daughter off the stage anyhow.

Demonic or just demons? The contrast with Dolly Parton is very telling. I’m struggling to think about any female performer with a better track record. I get the impression that when she’s not performing, doing her charity stuff or taking care of her business, she spends a lot of time writing songs.

Whereas Whitney is credited with being involved in the authorship of just four tracks (all of them — tellingly — featuring anything from between three and six writers), Dolly’s written in excess of 3,500 songs. Three. And. A Half. Thousand.

Apart from that immense cornucopia of songs she is obviously genuinely a phenomenal human being. Having ravelled extensively through Tennessee a couple fo times in recent years and touched base with her Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge I know from experience how the locals are absolutely enthralled with her and everything she had done for the town. No one has a bad word to say about here there.

I know she has her knockers (boom boom), and having caught her show at Sydney Entertainment Centre in February 2014 I did do a double take on the pristine, consistent power of the then 68-year-old’s delivery. It also appeared as if certain elements of the music may have possibly been patched in from pre-recorded sound files too. 

This was several months before the hoo-ha about “miming” at Glastonbury. 

Such was the charm of her whole set, did it matter if Dolly had a bit of assistance in the technical department? Not a jot.

Was it fun? Absolutely.

She didn’t so much sing as present a musical autobiography complete with jokes and a huge cavernous bra suspended from the back of the stage, a two hour encounter of truthful songs of female experience and agency.

Country music has always been about theatre, storytelling and mythology — the enactment of naturalness rather than its reality — and Dolly Parton is the master of it. 

It is, however, also about authenticity of feeling, so when she ended the encore with a heartfelt, almost whispered I Will Always Love You it was moving because even after Whitney’s hijacking it’s still truly sublime, one of the few songs written about loss that is magnanimous rather than angry, resigned rather than distraught, that constantly attends to the feelings of the lost love rather than the singer’s own.

That’s the difference between ego and humility. Dolly has the latter quality in spades. Her gratitude and spirituality were disarming: a bawdy icon dripping in rhinestones who knows her way around a witty bon mot beaming impassively and trotting up and down the stage like a particularly well-bred cocker spaniel.

The simplicity of her performance allowed you to focus on her words, a masterclass in some of the subtlest, most beautiful and direct expressions of feeling set to music.

Therein lies the simple fact of the spectacular songcraft: her joyous set was a reminder of just how many hits she has under that glitzy belt.

Evergreen and ageless, Dolly Parton has been illuminating the planet for seventy-five years. Truly a celebration of joy and happiness then, not to mention true artistry. And, sadly, that’s something Whitney Houston could only aspire to.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: There’s a certain cleverness and joy that comes with embracing the past and repurposing it for the now. Mind you, when Pet Shop Boys remixed Madonna’s 2006 single Sorry and purloined the cowbells (from the TR-808 drum machine, trivia fans) from I Wanna Dance With Somebody it was very likely down with cheeky intent.

You can almost hear Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe sniggering that they effectively brought arch nemeses Madge and Whitters together on record at last. Now that’s what I call double irony.

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